Please note: this post was co-authored with Steve Smith of ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’
As my regular readers will know, I am not a fan of traditional explicit error correction (error pointed out and correction provided), as (a) it does not involve the students actively in the correction process – they are merely passive recipients of the feedback process and (b) students do not usually pay attention to it (Cavalcanti, 1990; Conti, 2004).
Even the common practice of underlining and coding errors and asking the student to self-correct is of limited effectiveness. Firstly, because one cannot correct errors with structures one does not know. Secondly, for errors for which the rule is ‘known’, this practice stops at the product (the mistake) thereby failing to address the most important issue: the cognitive processes which caused the mistake in the first place – which usually refer to cognitive overload/ divided attention. In order to address self-correctable performance errors effectively teachers have to provide the learners with practice in processing the linguistic environment(s) that caused those mistakes – during production of the same sort as the one in which they were made. This is very rarely done in my experience.
Any corrective intervention, in order to impact the target students, must (1) involve the students in deep processing of negative feedback (i.e. involving substantial cognitive investment and higher order thinking skills); (2) be as distinctive and memorable as possible, so as to bring the target mistake into the student’s focal awareness; (3) give rise to a positive affective response on the part of the students whilst lowering the anxiety resulting from being told they made mistakes; (4) provide students with a clear path to future success in the handling of the structure (e.g. by enhancing the metalinguistic awareness necessary for avoiding that mistake in the future and/or providing a memory strategy); (5) provide extensive practice aimed at eradicating the target mistake(s).
Moreover, for error correction to be effective, a culture of attention to formal accuracy has to be fostered and actively supported across all levels of receptive and productive practice. In many communicative classrooms nowadays this does not happen, and accuracy has become a secondary concern, regardless of the fact that if we are indeed preparing our students to use the target language for work – and not merely survival-level communication – their output needs to be as error-free as possible.
In this post I describe four techniques I use with my students to ‘spice up’ the correction process of performance errors. They are more time-consuming than ordinary correction techniques, hence I don’t use them all the time and only with groups I believe will benefit from them.
Let me reiterate the importance of providing our students with extensive practice with a ‘faulty’ structure in writing and speaking (in that order). Only repeated spaced practice fixes mistakes; explicit correction or self-correction with codes as well as any of the techniques below are only the beginning -the awareness-raising phase – of the remediation process. The reader should bear this in mind in reading the below.
Here are the techniques. The reader should note that I usually ask the students, as a follow-up, to explain the rule either in writing or to a group of peers and to produce (as homework) 10 original sentences containing that structure on a set topic (e.g. health and lifestyle). All the techniques below can be turned into a competition; my more able groups love to compete against each other ‘in Error hunts’.
It goes without saying that one should only use these techniques with self-correctable errors which refer to L2 items that the students know in abstract how to use but occasionally fail to use under real operating conditions due to processing inefficiency/cognitive overload or to a specific linguistic context.
2.1 Choose the right option – a student has made a mistake in the handling of a structure. Instead of supplying the correction or asking to self-correct, you provide two or even three possible options to choose from – only one being correct – and ask her to provide a rationale for her choice. This technique is particularly useful when dealing with students who may find the self-correction task daunting as it provides a cue that might confirm their hypotheses. Example:
Intended meaning: if I had more money I would buy a new car
Error: si j’ai plus d’argent j’acheterais une nouvelle voiture
Option 1: Si j’avais eu plus d’argent j’acheterais une nouvelle voiture
Option 2: Si j’aurais plus d’argent j’acheterais une nouvelle voiture
Option 3 (the correct one) : Si j’avais plus d’argent j’acheterais une nouvelle voiture
2.2 Error hunt – Tell students that there are an ‘X’ number of mistakes in a specific sentence or section of their essay and challenge them to find them under timed conditions. You may cue them as to the nature of the mistakes (e.g. Spelling, Word order, Verb ending, Tense, etc.). This technique has more potential for learning than simply pointing the students to the specific word or word cluster where a mistake is and ask to self-correct. Why? Because, as pointed out above very often it is the context where a mistake is found that causes the student to get the application of a given grammar rule wrong, not the knowledge of the rule itself. In other words, the student-writer’s working memory experiences processing inefficiency due to the challenges posed by the surrounding linguistic environment (e.g. too many grammar rules to juggle at the same time). Error hunts enable the student to re-process the faulty item receptively in the challenging environment that caused her to err but receptively, which allows her more time to think and to bring to consciousness the source(s) of the mistake.
2.3 Code the errors – Errors in essays are underlined. The students are given a list of error categories such as ‘Spelling’, ‘Word order’, ‘Agreement’, etc. and are asked to code the errors underlined by themselves or working in a group. This can be made into a competition. Tip: do not underline too many errors and leave the categories broader with less proficient groups of learners.
2.4 Error auctions – In marking your year 11 students’ essays you found a set of mistakes that are common to most of them. Time-wise it is more practical to deal with those in class, together, rather than individually. Hence, you may stage an error auction. You put a sample sentence for each of the errors you elect to target on a different slide of a Power Point. You assign a ‘price’ to each, depending on how difficult you think the error will be to correct (e.g. 1,000 dollars for an omission of the subjunctive, 100 dollars for a spelling mistake). You divide the students into groups of three, and assign them a budget (e.g. 5,000 dollars). You will show each sample sentence and will give the students a set amount of time to write on mini-boards (one per group) the correct version of that sentence (with or without explanation of the rule – at your discretion). The groups that get it right are awarded the amount of money specified on the slide; the ones that get it wrong, lose it. The group with the most money at the end of the game wins.
Error correction must aim at involving the students actively in the feedback-handling process and to bring about high levels of cognitive and emotional arousal in order to give rise to learning. The four techniques I have just outlined help making the correction distinctive and more engaging but are no panacea. The most important part of the remedial learning process is extensive spaced practice for months and months on end under self-monitoring conditions (i.e. the students is producing output specifically monitoring the application of the problematic rules). Any correcting intervention that stops at awareness-raising is doomed to fail.